Get us in your inbox


Kingsley Ben-Adir: ‘It doesn’t get more dangerous for me than playing Bob Marley’

Bob Marley, Malcolm X, Basketball Ken – are there any icons the Londoner can’t play?

Kingsley Ben-Adir
Photograph: Laura Gallant/Time Out
Photograph: Laura Gallant/Time Out
Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Kingsley Ben-Adir’s journey to play Jamaican musical legend Bob Marley began in the less-than-tropical climes of Watford.

‘I was in fucking Barbieland with my guitar,’ he laughs of his first steps to play the legendary Rastafarian in ‘Bob Marley: One Love’. While his fellow Kens – Ryan Gosling, Ncuti Gatwa and co – were elsewhere on ‘Barbie’s Leavesden set, the hitherto-unmusical Londoner was having a tentative first go at ‘Redemption Song’ and ‘No Woman, No Cry’.

‘They could hear me murdering that guitar in those first 12 weeks,’ he says of his hesitant, YouTube-taught steps. ‘I was doing really basic chords not very well.’

Proper tuition – and a fancier guitar – would follow. A tonne of other work, too. 

Kingsley Ben-Adir
Photograph: Laura Gallant/Time Out

From K-Town to Trenchtown

Ben-Adir grew up in Kentish Town in a house full of Caribbean culture. Trinidadian, mainly, but with loads of Jamaican friends too. ‘My grandparents came over from Trinidad in the ’50s and I grew up in their house,’ he says. ‘All my aunties and uncles in London came over [too]. It’s who I am.’

As a teenager he went to school in Gospel Oak and hung out in Camden. ‘It was just smoking and drinking and not doing very much,’ he remembers of his teen years. ‘I was hanging out and partying. I didn’t like computer games, so I was always out.’

Secondary school was meant to be followed by a degree in English and French in Manchester, but ‘a fucking E in French’ kiboshed the plan. Instead, his new-found love of film and a bunch of mates at drama school prompted a rethink. Acting had been his gift at school – ‘I don’t want this to sound cheesy or anything but I wasn’t that good at anything else’ – so he applied for a spot at Guildhall School of Music and Drama (fellow alums: Michaela Coel, Lily James, Jodie Whittaker) to see where his chops could take him. 

Kingsley Ben-Adir
Photograph: Laura Gallant/Time Out

If you’d looked through Ben-Adir’s 350-ish-strong DVD collection back then (he’s had a clearout since), you’d find other clues as to how his professional life would pan out. It was actors as much as films that fired his imagination. Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘There Will Be Blood’. Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton in ‘In America’. Kathy Burke and Ray Winstone in ‘Nil By Mouth’.

Today, chatting after Time Out’s photoshoot not far from his old Camden haunts, it’s Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon’ that’s on his mind. ‘I don’t care what anyone says, I fucking love it. What Joaquin (Phoenix) and Vanessa (Kirby) are doing is so vulnerable and so ugly, but also really beautiful. I love the bravery of that.’

Picking the profession was one thing, breaking into it was something else. ‘You get those actors who come out of drama school and they’ve got 20 top agents who all want to sign them and they’re like: (adopting luvvie voice) “Oh my god, I’ve had 15 auditions this week and I’m so spent!” You’re like: Fucking hell, lucky you. I’ve had two this month and I need both of them.’

Keeping it real-life

The journey to Trenchtown may have been a long one for the 37-year-old, but things are all rosy now. As Basketball Ken in ‘Barbie’ he showcased his rarely-tapped flamboyant, comedic side, resplendent in an orange headband and a can-do attitude. In ‘Bob Marley: One Love’ he showcases everything else in his significant range. He’s terrific in the film, offering a charismatic, believable Bob Marley. His ‘Redemption Song’ has come a long way, too.

These days, Ben-Adir’s CV is a Wikipedia-scroll of real-life icons. The kind that people get really protective about. Along with Marley, he’s played Malcolm X in ‘One Night in Miami…’, cameoed briefly as Barack Obama in ‘The Comey Rule’ on American telly, and nearly played Muhammad Ali, until the financing for Ang Lee’s ‘Thrilla in Manilla’ fell apart. When I ask if he’s drawn to playing real people, he demurs. ‘I had no intention of going out to try to find a biopic,’ he says. ‘You take the best thing that’s on the table – or you don’t take anything. Bob and Malcolm were by far the best things on the table.’ 

Bob Marley: One Love
Photograph: Paramount PicturesKingsley Ben-Adir plays Bob Marley and Lashana Lynch is Rita Marley in ‘Bob Marley: One Love’

Surely there’s a sense of risk in playing all these icons? He cedes the point. ‘It doesn’t get more dangerous for me than playing Bob,’ he notes. ‘I’m looking at him, going: he’s 5'7", I’m nearly 6'2"; we speak in two different registers; yes, I have a Black parent and a white parent, and so does he, but being mixed-race in Jamaica in the ’60s is completely different to being mixed race growing up in London in the late ’90s.’ He pauses. ‘Part of me didn’t understand why they’d be coming to me for this.’

Part of me didn’t understand why they’d be coming to me for this

He thinks that his own mixed heritage was a big draw for the Marley family, with Bob’s son Ziggy at the forefront as producer – and that his performance as Malcolm X in Regina King’s ‘One Night in Miami…’ might have sealed the deal. King certainly would have given him a ringing endorsement. ‘Kingsley truly loves and respects the art form,’ she tells me over email. ‘I picked that up five minutes into our initial conversation.’  

Kingsley Ben-Adir
Photograph: Laura Gallant/Time Out

Being Bob

Ben-Adir loves the term ‘myth-busting’ to describe his approach to Bob Marley. And the myths are abundant, especially outside Jamaica: that Bob was some kind of mellow stoner, a peace-and-love hippie in dreads. He isn’t having any of that. ‘In the West, we have an idea of who we think Bob is, but in Jamaica, they’re like, “No, Bob was from the streets.” He’s a tough man, he’s not an American dad. And he was dealing with a lot: the illness and being away from his family and being in exile in London. There’s nothing cheesy about this.’

He bonded with Ziggy Marley over a shared desire to show Bob’s human side rather than just burnish those old legends. ‘Bob’s a hero and an icon to so many people, and in Jamaica, you can’t even imagine...’ So what was it like filming in Marley’s old Caribbean homeland? ‘All love,’ he says. ‘They were like: “This English boy’s crazy!” But Jamaicans don't business with being overly showy about anything. Ziggy and Neville (Garrick, Marley’s best friend) were always there, so I could holler at them and they’d say: “Bob wouldn’t say it like that!”

I feel like Bob really loved London. He didn’t like the cold too much, mind you

Bob’s daughter, Cedella, sent him a file of 50 of her dad’s interviews, which he diligently transcribed word-for-word. ‘Representing the culture and the language was more important than anything else,’ he says. ‘I learnt so many interviews off by heart, so I had so many phrases and expressions ready to go.’ 

You might guess that, having played Marley, Obama, Malcolm X – not to mention ‘The OA’s New York gumshoe – accents come naturally to Ben-Adir. Not so. ‘I had a couple of really shit experiences in America,’ he remembers. ‘A casting director stopped me and said it wasn’t working. My standard American [accent] wasn’t as good as I thought it was, so I put a lot of money into working with top dialect coaches. You only get a few chances with that stuff before word gets around. You’ve got to work it like the gym or times tables.’ 

All roles require prep, of course, but playing Bob Marley was on a different level. ‘Guitar, singing, patois, dialect, reading, watching concerts, starting to think about dancing, script interpretation, rewrites… I was up at 5am every morning trying to get my head around it.’

Searching for parallels between actor and character may be the laziest kind of cod psychology, but it’s hard not to note a steeliness that Ben-Adir shares with Marley: a desire to do the work and cut out the fuss. Neither of them let setbacks get in their way. 

One Night in Miami...
Photograph: Amazon StudiosBen-Adir as Malcolm X in ‘One Night in Miami...’

Ask him how he feels about Netflix’s cancellation of ‘The OA’, a sci-fi show with a devoted fanbase in which his character, a private investigator with shades of Bogart, was just getting started, and he’s sanguine. ‘I was fine,’ he says. ‘My mind was like (clicks fingers) cool, we’re available for other stuff. Treating your highs in the same way you treat your lows is [important to me], and honestly, I feel like if you don’t do that in this profession, you’ll go mad.’

Talking to him – and later, transcribing his words – I’m struck by just how psychologically ‘built’ he is. There’s not the faintest trace of clichéd actorly insecurity here. Everything has a positive. Not complaining is key. ‘No one is making you do this,’ he says. ‘If you can’t fucking cheer up about it, there’s loads of other jobs to do. I know that sounds harsh. It’s like feeling the pressure of playing Bob: was it intense and was it scary? Yes, but self-inflicted – no one made me do it.’

Kingsley Ben-Adir
Photograph: Laura Gallant/Time Out

London calling

Ben-Adir and Marley share a deep love of London. ‘I feel like Bob really loved it here,’ he says. ‘It was a safe space where he could write and concentrate. He didn’t like the cold too much, mind you.’

When I ask what he loves most about the city, the actor reveals a bit of a brutalist streak. ‘I miss the concrete when I’m away,’ he says. ‘Too much grass is odd!’ The pub and a pint of Guinness is where he likes to be. ‘When I’m not working, I like eating and drinking and not doing very much. Just walking around, going to shops, watching football and doing all that.’ 

The two diverge on their choice of football teams, though, with the actor reflecting wryly on Marley’s rep as a Spurs fan. ‘I heard the other day that he really was a Tottenham fan, so maybe that was just kept away from me because I’m an Arsenal fan.’

Kingsley Ben-Adir
Photograph: Laura Gallant/Time Out

Bringing the Kenergy

There’s no Academy Award for Best Supporting Supporting Actor but if there was, Ben-Adir would surely be a shoo-in for ‘Barbie’. Whenever Ken, played by the Oscar-nominated Ryan Gosling, is hanging out with his guy-friends, chances are the Londoner is right next to him. So how did he come to be Ken’s main side-Ken? ‘It’s what old-school Cockney actors call “nicking a bit”,’ he explains. ‘There wasn’t much in the script, so it was about finding a way to create a little Ken who connected to the theme. I have no brain, I think what he thinks, so being right next to him made sense: to get him an ice-cream, take his jacket… I think Greta enjoyed the silliness of it.’

Photograph: Warner Bros.Ben-Adir (far right) as Basketball Ken in ‘Barbie’

He’s got nothing but love for his fellow Ken. ‘Awesome guy and a real pro,’ he says of Gosling. ‘We hung out on set, and I went to a dinner or two, but I was busy with Bob and he was there with his kids, so he’s not out on the town.’

Ben-Adir isn’t usually one for collecting film props, but his guitar from ‘One Love’ is. It turns out the producers even asked for it back. ‘That request was a dagger in my heart, I’d spent so much time with it,’ he remembers. ‘There was no way. I offered to give them the money for it.’

It’s one thing that brings out the Londoner’s nostalgic side. 

‘I kept it. It’s there. But for some reason, I haven’t picked it up since.’

‘Bob Marley: One Love’ is out worldwide Wed Feb 14.

Photographer: Laura Gallant @lauramgallant
Design Director: Bryan Mayes @bryanmayesdotcom
Senior Designer: @818FPV
Writer: Phil de Semlyen @phildesemlyen
Stylist: Sam Carder @sam_victor
Groomer: Liz Taw @liztaw
Location: The Cross @thecrossldnIn look one Kingsley wears @richardjamesofficial jacket, shirt from @levis and, trousers from @nanushka and shoes from @schuh
He wears @gucci in look two
Kingsley wears @nanushka blazer, knitwear from @denzilpatrick, @prada shirt, trousers from @paulsmithdesign and shoes from @harrysoflondon

    You may also like
    You may also like